|Topic:||The essentials of virtuality|
|Title:||Director and Management Consultant|
John Berry is a Director and Management Consultant with TimelessTime, a people-management consulting firm. Prior to founding, TimelessTime. Mr Berry served with InterConnect Communications, part of Ericsson, as the director responsible for their consulting in wireless regulation. Previously, Mr Berry started and built ATDI Ltd, a wireless and spectrum management software and consulting, he also worked for Thales in radio spectrum management and led Maxon’s mobile marketing firm. Mr Berry started his technology management career with Philips, leading its base station lab, and then led its mobile systems marketing. Mr Berry is a regular presenter and speaker on technology and management.
John Berry has a BSc in electronics and a BA in sociology, politics and economics. He also has an MBA, specialising in the management of technology and is just finishing an MSc in organisational technology at Birkbeck, University of London.
Today, broadband connections are adequate for virtual working, but without richer communications, people will struggle to convince participants of the presence of others, and connections will not replace face-to-face. Most firms wish that at least some of their workers could work on the move or from home or client sites. Effective virtual teams need connectivity, computers, Internet connections from wherever they are; appropriate applications with relevant peripherals; methods that make teams function; and workers with the right competencies and behaviours.
Today, the majority of firms are looking at the prospect that at least some of its workers could benefit from working while on the move or from home or client sites. The idea that one can participate in an audio-visual conference call while on the train, for instance, must be hugely attractive. After all, time is money and reducing lost time through travel must be every manager’s aim. Similarly, the ability to run a workshop with clients from the comfort of home is an obvious benefit to a firm. Office space is an overhead and so any corporate real estate reduction must be eagerly sought.
It’s 2013 and it feels as though all the pieces of the jigsaw are in place. Regulators have allocated spectrum, 3G (if not 4G) networks have rolled out, fibre is in the ground to cabinets, and every worker has a computer. Surely virtuality is with us?
Well perhaps… Today, most of us work in teams and for effective virtual team function, five things are necessary. From the technology side, firms need connectivity and computers. They need workers to be able to connect with the Internet from wherever they are located; and they need computers running appropriate applications with relevant peripherals. From the people side, they need methods that make teams function and workers with the right competencies and behaviours.
How practical is virtuality today. There are technological advances that allow virtual operation. Then too, there are the people and there are companies either trying to foster the dual development of employees and technology virtuality requires. Other companies, though, simply wait expecting technology alone to drive the change towards the virtual organisation. Our experiences with a recent virtual project team, spread geographically across Europe and the Middle East, provides some insight into how technology benefits such operations.
An EMEA case study
As a backdrop to this discussion there’s a case study: around eight consultants located in the UK, The Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Qatar and around six clients located in Iraq. All worked recently on a cross-national, cross-company project. All the consultants worked from home or from touch-down centres and all clients worked from offices in the Green Zone in Baghdad.
This case study tells us much about how advanced the technology and the people are and hence how well firms across the region can embrace virtuality. It will be used throughout to illustrate the various arguments.
For virtual operation, the participants must be afforded the ability to communicate wherever they are located. But what does that mean? Team members need to communicate by voice. We have that today – although international mobile calls are costly and many operators block free services such as Skype. Luckily subscription services, such as GoToMeeting, are allowed and, today, local access points are provided in many countries. It was quite a shock when one project team member announced his participation while mobile across Jordan. So the team can associate and build trust through regular calls.
It’s somewhat more effective though if voice is augmented by imagery. Watching the caller on screen can be a distraction but looking at and helping construct an organisational chart or a job description on-screen helps understanding. The audio and visual cues work together. So online workshops need Citrix-style applications which, in turn, need broadband connection with modest latency and near-continuous availability. Thankfully though the limiting characteristic is not the broadband speed – online meeting applications keep going even when only a few hundred kb/s are available.
Not spots, islands and contention
Now in principle, network operators report high percentage coverage of populated areas. But in reality, most countries suffer extensive not-spots. 3G services are focused in city centres and regulators have yet to allocate adequate spectrum. As recently reported extensively, around 700MHz of UHF spectrum is needed now by operators and while much has been identified, only a fraction has actually been allocated. The result is that demand exceeds supply and users suffer extensive contention, degrading any ability to sustain data connection.
Luckily, hotels, cafes and other providers of wi-fi have now substantially stopped charging by the day. The result is that workers can get free or low-cost access just about whenever it’s needed, at least somewhere in town. Trains too are beginning to use mobile networks for mobile access, providing wi-fi access inside the carriage to users and while connection suffers contention, it works. So between mobile networks and wi-fi ‘islands’, connection is available.
So it’s a mixed state. Our consultant participating while mobile across Jordan is good but today, such ubiquity is pretty much restricted to voice.
Computers and applications
For technology to afford workers function, they need applications. Workers need the ‘normal’ office packages but virtual workers need shared workspaces to replace the Sharepoints and the CRMs of the headquarters domain.
Dropbox is possibly the most widely accepted shared file-space today and yet many corporate IT ‘police’ forbid such connection and sharing, citing security worries. Our EMEA project team suffered just this. Some team members could only receive working documents via email and since most of us receive hundreds of emails a day, it’s a real challenge to manage team material production and distribution.
Collaboration is a challenge. But if workers adopt Web 2.0 technology, it can work. Social media allows teams to micro-blog, keeping one another up-to-date and applications such as GitHub allow issues to be shared and resolved.
Now, in our EMEA team case, consulting methods had to be settled on once the job was won. The clients were based in the Green Zone in Baghdad and few of the consultants were prepared to go there – so the conventional delivery of documents and the richness of face-to-face workshops were not going to work. This meant that new approaches were needed that would accommodate the infrequent lean connectivity available.
And it happens that the world of software engineering has a method well suited to just this environment – Agile. The essence of Agile is the break-down of the project deliverables into multiple ‘stories’, the production of a deliverable during a ‘sprint’, its review at a ‘stand up’ and its subsequent revision and acceptance before repeating all again for the next ‘story’ in the project. Agile breaks the project into fortnightly periods. In the EMEA case, we broke the project into weeks.
One of the biggest issues when operating in virtual teams is the building of trust. When face-to-face, trust is built through action but also through the basic liking and understanding between workers that comes from looking a colleague in the eye. In virtuality, trust comes only through action. Team members must do what they say they’ll do when they say they’ll do it. And trust won’t be built when conventional plans are developed with project phases lasting months before deliverables appear. Our variant of Agile helps build trust by demanding that team members produced smaller deliverables sooner. Action is simply measurable.
So methods must be adjusted to accommodate virtual working and the nuances of dispersed teams.
And the people?
People are defined by their individual and substantially unchanging characteristics: their personality, intelligence, competency, beliefs, attitudes and motives. The people are used to working in a particular way. They have beliefs about the success of the established method. The job they do motivated them, providing skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy and the necessary feedback. And now the people have a new, very different way of doing their jobs.
Change means un-learning what they knew and re-learning new skills. Suddenly visual cues are absent – after all you can’t see your colleague – and shared working environments, email and micro-blogging prevail. Impressions are managed differently, more by performance than anything and all parties can multi-communicate – the idea that they can be on an audio-visual conference with a super-group, while communicating privately with others.
People have competencies. When methods and technologies change, these competencies must be developed. Firms must therefore not only invest in technology – providing the connectivity, computers and applications – but must also invest in the people.
Staff often take time to embrace the audio-visual workshops and to adjust their own style to this form of communication. Some may struggle to adjust to the pressure of the week bursts of activity and all must feel that the environment is sufficiently risk free to allow the experimentation needed to learn anew.
Firms often assume that by implementing technology, change will just happen. This is not the case. Perhaps the youth of today, who grew up with the Cloud and social media, will embrace change, but those more established in their ways may reject, resist or work round the change or even leave the organisation.
There is a duality here – the social system in which people work together to achieve objectives and the technological system that facilitates this working. The social places pressure on the technological, modifying what people will use and how they use it and the technological modifies the social, affording the users of new approaches to old problems – if they chose to accept it. Technology affords connectivity and tools, encouraging virtuality and social systems mingle with the technology to afford new methods.
Today, connectivity is adequate for virtual working but only if team members are fixed or nomadic, using fixed or nomadic broadband connection. Until mobile networks offer a richer communications, they will struggle through their slower information processing to convince participants of the presence of others, hence replacing face-to-face.
Companies can wait and let the technology and colleagues force change – or they can plan change and train staff for the sort of virtuality they want. But just like in our EMEA team, change is inevitable and the technology is sufficiently mature to allow much to be achieved.